Digital Publishing and the Web

Electronic books are on the rise everywhere. For some this threatens centuries-old traditions; for others it opens up new possibilities in the way we think about information exchange in general, and about books in particular. Hate it or love it: electronic books are with us to stay.

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A press release issued by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project in December 2012 describes an upward trend in the consumption of electronic books. The trends are similar in the UK, China, Brazil, Japan, and other countries.

“…the number of Americans over age 16 reading eBooks rose in 2012 from 16 to 23 percent, while those reading printed books fell from 72 percent to 67. …the number of owners of either a tablet computer or e-book reading device such as a Kindle or Nook grew from 18% in late 2011 to 33% in late 2012. …in late 2012 19% of Americans ages 16 and older own e-book reading devices such as Kindles and Nooks, compared with 10% who owned such devices at the same time last year.”

What does this mean for web professionals? Electronic books represent a market that’s powered by core web technologies such as HTML, CSS, and SVG. When you use EPUB, one of the primary standards for electronic books, you are creating a packaged website or application. EPUB3 is at the bleeding edge of current web standards: it is based on HTML5, CSS2.1 with some CSS3 modules, SVG, OpenType, and WOFF. EPUB3’s embrace of scripting is sure to encourage the development of more interactivity, which is sought after in education materials and children’s books.

Recently W3C has been working more closely with digital publishers to find out what else the Open Web Platform must do to meet that industry’s needs.

One comment we’ve heard loud and clear is that people care deeply about centuries-old print traditions. For example, Japanese and Korean users have accepted that many websites display text horizontally, from left to right. While that may be ok for the web, when these users read a novel, they expect traditional layout: characters rendered vertically and from right to left. Japanese readers often find it more tiring to read a long text in any other way. To address these requirements, W3C is looking at the challenges that vertical layout poses for HTML, CSS, and other technologies; see for example CSS Writing Modes Module Level 3.

Requirement of Japanese Text Layout summarizes the typesetting traditions and resulting requirements for Japanese. These traditions should eventually be reproduced on the web as well as in electronic books. In June, W3C will hold a digital publishing workshop in Tokyo on the specific issues surrounding internationalization and electronic books.

We have also heard that the “page” paradigm—including notions of headers, footnotes, indexes, glossaries, and detailed tables of contents—is important when people read books of hundreds or thousands of pages. Web technology will need to reintegrate these UI elements smoothly; see for example the CSS Paged Media Module Level 3 (Joe Clark talked about paged media and the production of ebooks in 2010, and Nellie McKesson gave us an update in 2012). In September in Paris, W3C will hold a workshop on the creation of electronic books using web technologies. Note that both this and the Writing Modes Module are still drafts and need further work. That means now is the right time for the digital publishing community to have its voice heard!

In the realm of metadata, important to publishers, librarians, and archivists, the challenge is to agree on vocabulary (and there are many: Harvard’s reference to metadata standards is only the tip of the iceberg). Pearson Publishing recently launched the Open Linked Education Community Group to examine creating a curated subset of Wikipedia data that can be used for tagging educational content.

Here are a few other places to look for activity and convergence:

  • People take notes in books and highlight text. Most ebook readers these days have built-in support for these features, but they are not widely deployed on the web.
  • Today search engines tend to ignore electronic books; I expect that will not remain the case for long.
  • “Offline mode” in web technology is still difficult to use if you try to access more than a single page of a site. Since an ebook is quite often a packaged website, ebook offline mode will need to improve to support browsing.
  • ebooks business models are likely to drive new approaches to monetization, some of which may be found in native mobile environments but not yet on the web.

Although publishing has some specific requirements not common to the web generally, I think that the distinction between a website (or app) and an ebook will disappear with time. As I have written before, both will demand high-quality typography and layout, interactivity, linking, multimedia, offline access, annotations, metadata, and so on. Digital publishers’ interest in the Open Web Platform is a natural progression of their embrace of the early web.

2 Reader Comments

  1. Please, let’s not forget maths (MathML).
    E-books are going to be just as important for scientific publishing, but only if the language of science gets supported.

  2. It’s going to be interesting to see how much of the skeumorphism of ebooks remains, especially as they become more interactive, ‘blended’ with the web proper, and as advertising becomes integrated more subtly.

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